to learn something significant about one's self?
Last week I wrote about the dread diagnosis we received, the awful prognosis for our English Bulldog, Chester. The whole thing has hooked me very deeply, more than I might have imagined. In the last couple of days I think I have stumbled onto why--which is to say, why beyond the obvious.
Of course people get attached to their pets--and Chester has been a singular joy for us. Of course people grieve when their pets suffer or die--they are, in very real ways, members of the family. And at a metaphorical level, some of our love for pets may come from the ways in which our pets counter all the the shearing forces, the atomizing and centrifugal effects, of economics and class and race. Even the powers and principalities cannot sabotage unqualified and unmerited love. We love our dogs, and they love us, and that whether we are rich or educated or whatever.
But for me I think it is something even more. Or less.
I began thinking about it this way: next week I am to be a resource person for young ministers in the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church. They are using one of my books, Every Disciples Journey, as a foundation for their discussion of vocation and the ministerial life. The book attempts to plot the life of Jesus according to the seasons of the Christian Year (sometimes known as the Temporal Cycle), and also the seasons of our own life and ministry as we see them interpreted in and by the life of Jesus. One of the questions the facilitators are going to ask is this: in what season of the Christian Year are you most at home?
My own answer is "Lent." I answer without thinking. But in reflecting on that I realize that Lent is the season of impending death. Shadows gather and death is a certainty: only the timing is in question.
And then I remember: Dad had his first bad heart attack when I was seven. The certainty of death came to live with us after that, sat in the corner of every room--like a grouchy old uncle who did not speak and did not have to: his disapproval was evident and it was only a matter of time. I came of age learning how to live in the valley of the shadow of death, learned to walk and talk under the glare of that grouchy old uncle.
I wonder if I have not created situations in my life to replicate that reality--the prospect of demise, whether of marriage or ministry--so that I would know what to do. Maybe I need that certainty to know how to go about a day, or a life. I do not know what it is like to live apart from death--it is a kind of mistress in my every relationship, personal and professional, demanding more and more attention, more and more energy, more and more of my resources, until she will have me at last.
Chester's death is certain. As is the death of any of the rest of us. He may yet outlive me, of course, but probably not. But the point is this: I think that this particular valley, the shadow of his death, has helped me to see my life in a different light, so to speak. It is not a pleasant place to be--and especially when folk think I am being silly, me a grown man and all, blubbering about my sick dog--but it is familiar. Age has little to do with anything, given that the only real difference between me at 54 and me at 7 is years.
And I suspect Chester's sickness has given me, or will give me, a bit of tonic as I try, keep trying, to understand my own various emotional malignancies, and what I might do to try to begin to get a little bit stronger, a little bit better.